It is most difficult to write the obituary of a person you have been so close to, within hours of her passing away. Sheila Dikshit was a combination of rarities that defied several stereotypes. As a human being, she never allowed her political rivalries and differences to come in the way of treating another human with dignity and respect. As a politician, she refused to succumb to her personal likes and dislikes.
I joined her in August 1998, when she was made president of the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee, tasked with reviving a faction-ridden party and uprooting the BJP from Delhi. The city, largely considered an RSS bastion, was slowly noticing
She loved the struggle, the challenge of transforming the city she grew up in her dharnas and protests. The workers of the party were full of fresh enthusiasm. Local leaders were cynical in their cautious response to her.
She once invited leaders of different factions to her modest apartment in Nizamuddin East to try and bring them all together and be battle ready for the Assembly elections that were to be held in November that year.
The intensity with which she engaged with them was contagious. As a young intern, I was amazed at the ease with which she turned them all from leaders fighting each other into leaders fighting for the Congress. Within a few months, she was able to generate a wave for the party, winning 53 of 70 seats. She became the Chief Minister.
As I was packing my bags to get back to Rajasthan to work in the rural development sector, where I had come from, I heard a knock on my door. Sheila ji, stood there and said, “Beta, would you like to join my team as my Officer on Special Duty looking after my media and political affairs?”
I was extremely restless with the pace at which the development sector worked during those days and was at a crossroads in my career. I joined her office in December 1998.
Every single weekday, the gates of her house would be opened for any and everyone who wished to meet her with any grievance. Whether she was getting experts involved to put a strategy in place to decongest Delhi or relocating polluting industries from residential areas or converting Delhi’s public transport from smoke-spewing diesel to CNG, she loved the struggle, the challenge of transforming the city, she grew up in and was in love with.
The telephone operators at her official residence were under clear personal instructions to connect every call to her, irrespective of what time of the night it was. Most calls would be related to power outages. She would attend to these calls personally and then also call relevant officers herself to try and resolve the problem. Privatisation of power distribution was on the top of her list of priorities.
“People have elected me to deliver good governance, not to indulge in politicking,” was her response to attacks by rivals within the party. She not only ignored internal politics, she just wouldn’t let it impact the poise with which she dispensed her duties as Chief Minister. In her mind, there was no ‘other camp’. She didn’t think in those terms.
MLAs belonging to the BJP would walk with ease into her office, getting their work done. To her, they were rivals only during elections and had every right to seek redressal to the grievances of their constituents.
Her relationship with Delhi’s media is a story of how from print driven to television, the media landscape evolved.
A powerful newspaper carried a series of stories against her. Being in my aggressive twenties, I stopped giving advertisements to that newspaper. When she got to know of this, she called me to her chamber and expressed her deep displeasure at my decision.
“This money does not belong to me and you, we cannot take such arbitrary decisions just because a newspaper is writing against us. Please call the Editor for breakfast with me tomorrow and let’s see what their issues are”. Over breakfast the next day, she apologised to the Editor for my decision.
In the span of 15 years, I saw her completely devastated on a few occasions. The controversy surrounding the CWG games hurt her immensely. She was committed to delivering a successful event that India would be proud of. She personally ensured that projects undertaken by the Delhi government got completed in time.
She just could not fathom why television journalists and anchors would not do their homework and blame her for decisions that did not fall under her jurisdiction at all. She had the satisfaction of delivering a very successful event but was hurt at the conduct of some of the leaders of the Congress at their attempts to discredit her government and her city.
Nirbhaya’s ghastly rape broke her completely. As a leader, she found herself without answers to such barbarism prevalent in the very society that worshipped goddesses.
She was uncomfortable at the changing idiom of politics. To her, grace and dignity were of far greater value than political one-upmanship. In her last term as Chief Minister, she found herself at the receiving end of an idiom that she was not comfortable responding to. That was one compromise she refused to make.
Her loyalty to the Congress was again totally contagious. It came naturally to her. At 81, she was brought in to lead the party again in Delhi. The party asked her to contest the Lok Sabha election. Her family members and well-wishers discouraged her from taking the plunge but Sheila Dikshit was not one to run away from a challenge. She heard us all out and also agreed with us. But she just could never say no to the party.
Sheila ji was always amused at those who wrote the Congress off. Her understanding of politics was based on a very personal instinct, an instinct sharpened by all that she had observed, witnessed and experienced through a career spanning over four decades.
To me, Sheila Dikshit was always the go-to person for every dilemma, every doubt and every crossroad. Before I left for Washington DC, earlier this month, I went and met her. “Beta, in politics the ups and downs are highly pronounced. Only if you are willing to go through the long haul, you will do well”.
Won’t forget these words ever Ma’am, just as I will never forget the innumerable lessons I learnt from you at every step of my memorable journey under your leadership.
(Pawan Khera was Officer on Special Duty/Political Secretary to Sheila Dikshit)